Bernhardt chairs 16.02.15

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To celebrate its 125th anniversary, the North Carolinian furniture maker commissioned three contemporary spins on design classics

In 1889, John Mathias Bernhardt began manufacturing bedroom furniture out of the white oak native to his home town in North Carolina. This enterprise would later become Bernhardt Furniture Company. Move forward 125 years, and Bernhardt finds itself a global manufacturer, with employees on six continents designing furniture for homes, offices and hotels. But what hasn't changed is that it's a "family company in a small town that is a community", says Jerry Helling, president of Berhnardt Design. "The essence of the entire company? It's about the people."

To mark its 125th anniversary, Bernhardt has therefore centred its celebrations on its people and the local community in Lenoir, home to the factory. The company is publishing 12 "stories of giving", which document the out-of-hours philanthropic efforts of its employees – ranging from setting up a refuge centre for the homeless to dressing underprivileged teens in prom gowns.

 

Words

Arthur Thompson

 

Above: Ross Lovegrove's Anne chair (front), Noé Duchaufour-Lawrance's Harper chair (right) and Jephson Robb's Alex sofa (back)

 

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Ross Lovegrove's Anne chair is made from American walnut

Accompanying this, Bernhardt has commissioned three chairs from designers Noé Duchaufour-Lawrance, Ross Lovegrove and Jephson Robb and artwork by New York artist Frederick McSwain. Helling tasked the designers with reimagining a classic American typology in a way that celebrates craftsmanship in woodwork and upholstery leather working, and demonstrates that archetypal inspirations can still prove relevant when handled correctly.

Duchaufour-Lawrance's Harper chair is an abstracted version of the Windsor rocking chair, which configures all the elements – the glides, spindles, arms and backrest – in an arrangement that makes them all appear to be engaged with one another. The leather saddle seat floats inside a nest of maple spindles, chosen for their visual transparency, which allows the eye to follow the continuous loop of the cherrywood frame. Although not American, the Windsor was chosen by French designer Duchaufour-Lawrance because there always seemed to be a rocking chair on the porch in the American films of his childhood. As Theodore Roosevelt once wrote, "What true American does not enjoy a rocking chair?"

   

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Although not American, the Windsor was chosen by French designer Duchaufour-Lawrance because there always seemed to be a rocking chair on the porch in the American films of his childhood

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Noé Duchaufour-Lawrance's Harper chair is made from maple, cherrywood and leather

Also inspired by a filmic version of America, Lovegrove took the courthouse chair ("The only truly American chair," Helling says) as inspiration: think Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird. The Anne chair, named after Bernhardt Design founder Anne Harper Bernhardt, is made of American walnut using traditional master carving machines, steam bending, a ban-saw and a seven-axis CNC machine. The result looks as if it has been sculpted in one piece – organically eroded by a millennium's worth of wind and rain.

Completing the collection is Robb's Alex sofa, a simplified, but no less opulent interpretation of the Chesterfield sofa, which reflects Bernhardt's respect for quality sewing and upholstery. According to Robb, Americans popularised the use of the Chesterfield name and made the sofa available to the middle classes, making it a suitably qualified muse.

Only about 67 per cent of family businesses make it beyond the first generation (12 per cent making it to the third). But Bernhardt employees now see its fourth generation walking through the factory. So, what will Bernhardt look like at 150? "I would like to see it a family company," Helling says, with no hesitation.

   

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